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A Journey to Purposeful Fin(tech)

The following is a guest post written by Theo Lau, Founder of Unconventional Ventures, Public Speaker, Writer, Podcast Host of One Vision.

2020 did not turn out the way we expected. With a tsunami of megadeals being announced in the first few weeks of the year, many predicted that it would yet be another banner year for fintech funding and M&A activities.

Then came the pandemic. And the economy came crashing down like Jenga blocks.

As COVID-19 has destabilized pretty much every aspect of our lives – companies big and small are preparing themselves for the long-term impact of the extended shutdown and economic downturn. With jobless claims hitting unprecedented levels, what do consumers need the most? How will financial services react and what roles do fintechs play?

Does the world need (yet) another metal credit card or another investing app? Do we really want to talk to our virtual assistant to figure out how much money we spent at Starbucks last month?

A new normal – and a different world

The U.S. unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent this month — a devastation not seen since the Great Depression. According to MarketWatch , “as many as 43 million new jobless claims have been filed since the pandemic began in mid-March, using unadjusted figures. That is one of every four people in the U.S. labor force.”

Goldman Sachs projected that the unemployment rate in the second quarter could hit 25%.

The health crisis has laid bare the structural inequalities that we face in the society, for those who are poor, non-white, women, and gig workers. According to the Washington Post , “20 percent of Hispanic adults and 16 percent of blacks report being laid off or furloughed since the outbreak began, compared with 11 percent of whites and 12 percent of workers of other races.”

Unsurprisingly, 70 percent of the people in line at a food bank had never been in a food line in their lives, according to Feeding America, the largest US hunger relief organization.

With so many who have yet to recover from the Great Recession, the added stress from the current downturn is unthinkable. How do we begin to think about recovery, when so many are in need? How do we build not only financial value, but also economic value? How do we, as an industry, put our focus back on the human experience? It is time to refocus on what matters.

Back to the basics

Give cash – fast

First and foremost, we need to get money in the hands of those who need it the most. Propel, a New York-based fintech startup and maker of Fresh EBT app, widely used by millions of SNAP households, is doing exactly just that. In partnership with non-profit GiveDirectly, the team delivers $1000 direct cash to 100,000 low income families in dire need of assistance amid the
COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Citizens Bank of Edmond, a community bank in Oklahoma, and Chime, a challenger bank, have both offered consumers early access to government relief.

Expand digital offerings

With more than half the world’s population in some form of lockdown, online and mobile banking adoption has increased dramatically for both incumbents and challengers. My favorite story is the one from PayPal, who reported that people over 50 were the company’s fastest growingsegment from March to April.

At a time when consumers are looking for safer and more convenient options to bank – this is the perfect opportunity to double-down and expand digital footprint.

  1. Be where your customers are. Engage with them via digital channels; augment capabilities of conversation interface and leverage online communities to share information and provide assistance.
  2. Create self-help or “how to” guides to walk users through different features of the digital offerings. And keep in mind accessibility needs – ensure that the design is inclusive of the demographics you are serving.
  3. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. What information would they be looking for and what services would they need the most? Do they know what bills will be due – and if they would have sufficient funds to cover the expenses?

When deploying new digital solutions, design the experience around the end user – your customer – by having a deep understanding on what they want to be able to do with their money, not by what your legacy processes have dictated.

Improve long term financial security

While COVID has accelerated the move towards digital, financial institutions have the opportunity to become heroes in helping consumers tackle financial challenges and achieve long term financial well-being, beyond managing day-to-day transactions.

According to estimates by TransUnion, nearly 15 million credit card accounts and almost three million auto loans are in “financial hardship” programs. Using insights drawn from consumers’ financial activities, financial institutions can work with them to find best possible solutions to
navigate the outstanding debt. Fintechs such as BillShark can also be employed to help bank consumers trim monthly subscriptions.

Now is the time to help consumers better understand their full financial picture, and offer guidance on next steps forward – beyond offering insights on past behavior. Take into account their life stage, not age – and the financial obligations they have.

Another untapped opportunity is financial caregiving for loved ones. With older adults being physically isolated at homes, adult children need ways to help their parents manage finances. But beyond paying bills, consumers can leverage fintech solutions such as those offered by Eversafe, which can analyze activities across financial institutions and help protect their assets
from financial exploitation.

(You are) Always on my mind

It is as much the title of a song from Pet Shop Boys, as it is what firms should be telling their customers. As the saying goes: Actions speak louder than words. How companies treat their employees and their customers during moments of crisis speak volume – to their true values.

Now is the time for incumbents to partner with fintechs and offer the best-in-class solutions for consumers – as we slowly emerge from the crisis and navigate towards an uncertain future. We must turn our focus back at the core of what financial services is about: It is time for purposeful fintech – one that uses technology to do good – and serve the true needs of the society – beyond a shiny user interface.